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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 03:18 GMT
George VI: The unexpected King
Family man: the future King George VI with his wife and daughters
On the 50th anniversary of the death of King George VI, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at the life and times of Britain's unexpected, and perhaps most under-rated, monarch.

He neither desired, nor ever expected, to become King.

A diffident, even painfully shy, figure who battled throughout his life with a nervous stammer, George VI was the unlikeliest of sovereigns, thrust on to the throne when his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936.

Besides mastering the art of kingship and rebuilding public respect for the monarchy following the shock of the Abdication he had, within three years, to lead his nation and empire into a war which became a fight for its very survival.

Albert Frederick Arthur George was born on 14 December 1895. It was not an auspicious date, being the anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria.

His aged great-grandmother, initially upset by the coincidence, later grew to love the young Prince Albert, saying that his birth "had broken the spell of this most unlucky date".

Prince Albert at naval college
Prince Albert at naval college
His father, who became King George V in 1910, was a harsh parent who once said of his two sons, Albert and the older Edward, "My father was scared of his father, I was scared of my father and I'm damned well going to see that they're scared of me."

He oversaw a brutal regime, aimed at instilling respect, deference and acceptance of duty into the princes.

Albert, naturally left-handed, was forced to write with his right hand and his legs were encased in splints to straighten his knock-knees.

Served at Jutland

At the age of 13 he was sent to naval college, where he was bullied, and eventually saw action as a junior officer at the battle of Jutland in 1916.

Shy and unassuming beside the raffish figure of his brother, by now the Prince of Wales, he preferred country pursuits to the butterfly life of a socialite.

Yet, despite his social handicaps, he presented an attractive figure to women. While at a ball in 1920, he met the young, outgoing and determined daughter of a minor Scottish aristocrat, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

Queen Mother
The Queen Mother: widowed at an early age
Increasingly drawn to the young woman, he wooed her for two years, enduring two unsuccessful proposals before she finally accepted.

The couple, ennobled as the Duke and Duchess of York, were married in April 1923. Their eldest daughter, the present Queen, was born three years later and Princess Margaret arrived in 1930. Their close family life, though, was soon to be shattered.

When King George V died in January 1936, a secret crisis, which came within an ace of bringing the monarchy to it knees, was played out behind closed doors.


The new king, Edward VIII had, for a number of years, enjoyed a relationship with an American socialite, Wallis Simpson.

As well as being a foreigner, she was a divorcée who was still married to her second husband and therefore totally unacceptable to the Establishment as Queen.

Indeed, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, said that he would resign if the King married Mrs Simpson. The new King struggled with his conscience for a whole year before finally abdicating, in favour of his younger brother, that December.

Unacceptable: Wallis Simpson and the ex-King
Unacceptable: Wallis Simpson and the ex-King
Far from the life which he had expected to lead as Duke of York, opening buildings and patronising charities, Prince Albert now found himself crowned King George VI, Emperor of India and ruler of hundreds of millions of subjects on all five continents.

The new King, untrained for the role which he had now assumed, quickly won the respect of his ministers and his people. It would stand him in good stead in the dark years of war which lay ahead.

The failure of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler (who dismissed George VI as "a simpleton") was complete when, on 3 September 1939, he announced that Britain was at war with Germany. The new King was now, like his father before him, a war leader.


1940 saw the German invasion of France, Chamberlain's resignation as prime minister and his replacement by the maverick Winston Churchill.

Though the King and Queen viewed the new premier with suspicion for the support which he had given to the former king during the abdication crisis, Churchill's Olympian handling of the war would eventually win the couple over.

The King and Queen were initially booed when touring bomb sites
The King and Queen were initially booed when touring bomb sites
In the same year, the Blitz on London brought the British people into the frontline of the conflict. Touring the shattered East End, the King and Queen were initially greeted with boos and jeers.

It was only with the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the Royal Family's refusal to leave the capital, that the mood of much of the general public became positive.

George VI's hard-working and conscientious manner eventually brought him hero status in his battered country. But victory, finally achieved in 1945, left him physically exhausted.

Early death

A series of health problems, culminating in lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker), led to the King's death at just 56 years of age.

But what of his legacy? It is, in fact, greater than we could imagine. Together with Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, he reinvented the idea of the active Royal Family.

The present Queen has inherited his sense of duty and dedication and continued to promote the interests of the successor to the Empire, the Commonwealth.

An ailing King George in 1952
Smoking and stress took its toll on the King
Egypt's late King Farouk once quipped that "Soon there will be only five kings left - the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts and the King of Diamonds."

It is to George VI's eternal credit that he brought the Royal Family through two major crises and set it on the course which it still steers, however uncertainly, today.

Remembering the day

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